Was Barack Obama's greatest contribution to legal scholarship the Bluebook?

Law reviews do many things. And one of the things they usually use is The Bluebook, a citation manual. The Bluebook is a student-run and managed by the editorial boards of four law reviews. It started in 1926 as a pamphlet that "did not pretend" to be exhaustive. Today, it spans 500 pages and embraces the most picayune details. (A favorite: when a lower-case letter "l" is used in a statutory citation, that letter should be italicized, as "l" to avoid confusion with a numeral "1.")

The Bluebook is constantly revised. It is currently in the Nineteenth Edition, and revisions for the Twentieth are underway.

It is, by far, the most dominant force in legal citations. The late 1980s saw the last serious challenge to the supremacy of the Bluebook. The University of Chicago introduced the Maroonbook, a proposal championed by, among others, Richard Posner (who has been notoriously critical of the Bluebook). But it never really caught on. The 2013 edition (PDF) spans just 91 pages, in contrast to the 500-page Bluebook. Law reviews, however, prefer, I suppose, the cottage industry of citation complexity.

One of the most significant revisions of the Bluebook occurred in the Fifteenth Edition. The Fifteenth Edition was published in 1991, five years after the previous edition. It ballooned in size by nearly 50%, from 272 pages to 366. A summary of the major changes comes from James W. Paulsen (South Texas) in a 1992 Harvard Law Review article, An Uninformed System of Citation. (Special thanks for Frank Bennett for directing me to this piece.)

First, the Bluebook formerly recommended "parallel citation" of cases to the "official" reporter of a state's judiciary and to the "unofficial" West version.

The most significant change in the new Bluebook is the command to drop all parallel citations to state court reports in law review articles and legal memoranda. Although undoubtedly well intended, this decision underscores The Bluebook's unhealthy bias against state courts and bolsters West Publishing Company's dominant position in the legal publishing market.

Official state reports have been criticized by academic librarians in recent years as expensive, difficult to obtain, and wasteful of shelf space. No matter what the merits of these complaints, The Bluebook's editors have gone overboard in their response. . . .

Unfortunately, as measured against the goals of fair competition and low-cost access to the law, the new Bluebook makes a bad situation worse. By favoring West Publishing over official state reports, The Bluebook will surely enhance West's market position.

Second, the Bluebook formerly included only the last names of authors for law review articles, and no identification for student work.

Now all authors - whether of books, newspapers, magazines, or law review articles (yes, even student authors) - are to be cited by their full name.

Two explanations exist for why this particular rule change could have come about, and Harvard admits to being influenced by both. First is the feminist complaint, epitomized by a recent Harvard Law Review author's observation that excluding first names represents “hierarchy, rigidity, and depersonalization, of the not altogether neutral variety.” The second reason is bibliographic: in this age of multiple Smiths, Jones, and Dworkins, first names help.

Finally, Professor Paulsen noted that the Bluebook took on a "social conscience."

In addition to devising citation forms for rock music and slipping their own names into print a hundred times or so, they have insured that the new edition will always be remembered as the citation manual with a social conscience. The Bluebook is now "politically correct," containing many new or different examples of proper citation form, at least fifty of which happen to have been written by women. The subject matter of the new examples includes feminism, sexual orientation, sexual harassment, reproductive rights, AIDS, blacks, Native Americans, Americans with disabilities, police brutality, prisoners' rights, apartheid, the Iran-contra scandal, ozone depletion, ocean dumping, oil spills, Bhopal, nuclear testing, Pacific fur seals, and whales. We are even reminded in a parenthetical note that "recycling helps the environment." The Bluebook, by the way, is not printed on recycled paper.

I've excerpted a few selections from the Fourteenth Edition and the Fifteenth Edition, side-by-side, so that you can see the changes.

And what does this have to do with President Barack Obama?

Mr. Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. He was the president of the Law Review, and he served in that role from 1990-1991. The Harvard Law Review generally leads the effort to revise the Bluebook, and the Fifteenth Edition was released in 1991.

Many have speculated about Mr. Obama's contribution to legal scholarship, from trying to determine what anonymous case comment he wrote while on the journal, to exploring his role on the Law Review, to examining the selection of articles while he served.

But, perhaps, Mr. Obama's greatest contribution to legal scholarship may have been helping to revise and update the Bluebook.

Of course, the precise role of any given editor is unknown, except to those participants. Perhaps the changes are trivial. Or, perhaps it's a Rorschach test, where some may like or dislike the Fifteenth Edition changes because they like or dislike Mr. Obama's policies. Or, perhaps it's a silly over-reading of a citation manual edited over 20 years ago. But as I have never seen anyone make this connection before, I thought I'd flag it as, perhaps, noteworthy.